Nebraska mother sentenced to 2 years in prison for giving abortion pills to pregnant daughter
The Associated Press
Published Friday, September 22, 2023 5:53PM EDT
A Nebraska mother who pleaded guilty to giving her teenage daughter pills for an abortion and helping to burn and bury the fetus was sentenced Friday to two years in prison.
Jessica Burgess, 42, pleaded guilty in July to tampering with human remains, false reporting and providing an abortion after at least 20 weeks of gestation, which is illegal in Nebraska. Madison County District Judge Mark Johnson sentenced her Friday to one year in prison for each count, with the first two to run concurrently. The sentence for the abortion count was ordered to run after the first two, amounting to a two-year sentence.
Her attorney, Brad Ewalt of Norfolk, sought probation, but the judge balked at that request. He said Burgess demonstrated that she knew she was breaking the state's abortion law by initially lying to investigators about it and by going to “extraordinary means” to obtain the pills online instead of through a Nebraska medical provider, according to the Norfolk Daily News.
“I shudder to think, Ms. Burgess, that you have such disrespect for a — call it a human fetus, call it a stillborn child — that you would treat it like yesterday’s trash and not give it some respect in its treatment and disposal,” the judge said. “Our society expects more; it demands more.”
Burgess, of Norfolk, Nebraska, admitted at her plea hearing to helping her then-17-year-old daughter end her pregnancy. As part of her plea, charges of concealing the death of another person and abortion by someone other than a licensed physician were dismissed.
Her daughter, Celeste Burgess, who is now 19, was sentenced in July to 90 days in jail and two years of probation for burning and burying the fetus. She was released from jail on Sept. 11.
Both Jessica Burgess and her daughter, who was in the courtroom Friday, wept as the elder woman was taken away in handcuffs to begin serving her sentence, the Daily News reported. She will be eligible for release after about a year.
The abortion, well into the teen's third trimester, violated Nebraska law at the time that banned abortion after 20 weeks of gestation. Officials have said Jessica Burgess ordered abortion pills online and gave them to her daughter in the spring of 2022.
Norfolk police opened an investigation into the abortion following a tip, according to an arrest affidavit. Police secured a search warrant to gain access to Facebook messages between the two, where prosecutors say the women discussed terminating the pregnancy and destroying the evidence. Police then found the burned fetal remains buried in a field north of Norfolk.
In one of the Facebook messages, Jessica Burgess instructed her daughter on how to take the pills to end the pregnancy, according to court records. In another, Celeste Burgess wrote, “I will finally be able to wear jeans."
During the legislative session that ended in June, Nebraska lawmakers who opposed Republicans' efforts to severely restrict abortion access repeatedly cited the Norfolk case, saying it shows state prosecutors would target women who seek abortions for criminal prosecution.
Republicans in the officially nonpartisan Nebraska Legislature failed this year to enact a six-week ban on abortions, but later passed a 12-week ban after adding it as an amendment to another bill limiting gender-affirming care for transgender youth. The American Civil Liberties Union has sued to overturn the abortion ban and transgender care bill, citing a Nebraska constitutional requirement that legislative bills stick to a single subject.
Both the legislative action and the sentencings in the Norfolk case came in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year to overturn Roe v. Wade, which for 50 years had established a constitutional right to abortion.